The back seat of a stretch limo making a tight turn is no place to stick a pencil in your eye, but Queen Latifah didn’t flinch. En route to a meeting at Cover Girl, where she is the face — and the name — of its Queen Collection (makeup for women of color), she did a quick touch-up. Peering into the mirror she had pulled down from the car’s ceiling, she stretched her lower lid and, as the car swerved to the left, drew a perfect line inside it. I squinted at the pencil.

“Is that Cover Girl?” I asked.

“Yup,” she said, without moving her eye from the mirror. “As far as you’re concerned.” I laughed as she dropped it quickly into her bag and pulled out a thick orange tube of Lash Blast mascara instead. “This is Cover Girl,” she said.

With or without makeup, Latifah’s face is at the center of her fortune. With her almond-shaped eyes and sweeping cheekbones, she could have been painted by Gauguin, though her beauty is recognizably her own, animated by a warmth, humor and innate self-confidence most women would kill for. Her stardom, in movies and television, has come from her gifts at playing the underdog or the outsider, the thick girl in body only, whose heart and brain are her best defense against the villainously rich, skinny and cutthroat. You can’t help rooting for her.

During the two days I spent with Latifah, I watched people respond to that distinctive face with the inevitable double-takes — on the street, on the train, in the office — with their own yelps of excitement and delight. Hers is a story many of them know well.

Dana Owens of Newark was raised Baptist and named herself Latifah as a child, after learning it was Arabic for “delicate, sensitive and kind.” At 38, she has already had numerous careers. She released her first album, “All Hail the Queen,” at 19, which, with its hit single, “Ladies First,” established her as rap music’s top female artist, proclaiming a message of self-respect and female empowerment in a genre famous for its misogyny. She won a Grammy for Best Rap Solo Performance in 1994 and was nominated six other times, including for the jazz-vocal “Dana Owens Album,” which went gold. In December she will release a new rap CD produced by Cool and Dre.

She generally avoids reading about herself online. “A lot of people are crazy, cruel and negative,” she said. “They got a little too much time on their hands to discuss everybody else. I have a limited amount of energy to blow in a day. I’d rather read something that I like or watch a program I enjoy or ride my damn motorcycle or throw back a couple of shots of tequila with my friends. Laughing and joking and actually living life. To sit there reading about myself, I don’t see the point of it. I’m bein’ myself.”

One topic of persistent speculation on the Web is Queen Latifah’s sexuality, particularly a supposed romance with a female trainer. She has never addressed her relationships publicly and was in no mood to start. “I don’t have a problem discussing the topic of somebody being gay, but I do have a problem discussing my personal life,” she said. “You don’t get that part of me. Sorry. We’re not discussing it in our meetings, we’re not discussing it at Cover Girl. They don’t get it, he doesn’t get it” — she gestured upstairs, toward Compere’s office — “nobody gets that. I don’t feel like I need to share my personal life, and I don’t care if people think I’m gay or not. Assume whatever you want. You do it anyway.”

Clearly, the struggle for privacy is ongoing. It makes sense that she surrounds herself with friends and family, even on movie locations. “I meet a lot of new people, which is fun to me, but I don’t roll with a lot of new people,” she said. “I’m not Hollywood in a sense that I couldn’t wait to get there and hang out with every actress and rapper and entertainer. I was cool with me before all that. I didn’t need all these new people or famous people to validate my existence. I think that’s been a strength for sure and kept me grounded.”

Read the full profile from the New York Times.